The Flame of Civilization: Fahrenheit 451 and the Preservation of Western Culture

“Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light a such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”  An old woman strikes a match and drops it on her kerosene-soaked books while the firemen stare in horror.  This is the America promised us in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where the printed book is banned because it makes people think.  It upsets minorities, makes the average feel inferior to the intelligent, and destabilizes and endangers society. Because this society no longer wants to value what books offer or think at all, it is destroying itself along with its books.  On one level this is a novel about censorship, control, and rebellion, but on a deeper level it examines three seemingly unrelated things that help preserve a culture: death, books, and a Christian view of choice and consequence.  Since he is dealing with the most fundamental issues a culture can face, Bradbury uses an author’s most foundational tool — structure of character and plot — to demonstrate these ideas.  His carefully contrasted characters and the recurring deaths in the plot show that it is the spirit behind books, not books themselves, and a right understanding of death that preserve a culture.  Within this structure, he offers hope and redemption to those who understand the truth and destruction to those who do not.

     The main characters of Fahrenheit 451 form a chiasmus of evil to good: Captain Beatty, Millie, Guy Montag, Faber, and Clarisse.  A chiasmus is a rhetorical device in which related terms are nested in an a b c b a pattern.  Captain Beatty and Clarisse represent the story’s moral absolutes, while Millie and Faber show the consequences of following one absolute or the other, and all of them influence Montag, the main character.  Outside the chiasmus but still structurally important are the old woman who dies for her books and the tramps at the end who live for them.  Though the woman’s appearance is brief, her bravery echoes through the whole book, and the candle she lights with her death never goes out.  Her opposite appears in the men who live for books, keeping the tradition alive in their own quiet way.

     Guy Montag is the center of the chiasmus and of the story, affecting everything and unaffected by nothing.  An Everyman, he goes to work, plays cards with his buddies while they wait for fires, and returns 

home to his wife.  He is impulsive and tries to do what he thinks is right.  Seeing the old woman burn completely unmakes his world, and he reacts in rage, confusion, and loneliness, searching for answers to questions he never thought he would ask.  Ultimately, in spite of his failings and flounderings, he becomes “such a candle, by God’s grace… as shall never be put out.”

     On one extreme of the chiasmus is Clarisse, who is “seventeen and crazy”, and the angel of the story. She meets life with seriousness, joy, and innocence, taking an intense interest in everything and everyone except the culture’s speed and entertainments.  With Montag, a complete stranger, she talks as if they have known each other her whole life, asking him probing questions — “Do you read?” and “Are you happy?” — at their first meeting and unabashedly sharing her delights with him.  This girl has never read a book, yet she embodies the essence of books.  She is wise and confident but not arrogant, thinks deeply but is never aloof, gives of herself in friendship and asks nothing, filled with an unquenchable zest for living — and she is the catalyst that irrevocably alters Montag’s life.  

     Clarisse’s flame-and-char-colored contrast is Beatty, Montag’s fire captain.  He is sinister as the serpent, proud, and blinded by the desire to maintain his power.  He knows books are dangerous, so he refuses to let them change him.  It is the firemen’s job to keep people from books and thus keep them happy, ignorant, and entertained.  He senses when Montag is wavering and pounces — he flatters with false camaraderie, then spins a whirlwind of confusion and laughs at the result, delighting in the evil he spreads.  To defend his position, Beatty uses books – snippets taken from centuries of the written word, twisted and taken out of context to prove his thesis that books make people miserable.  

     The genius of these two characters lies in their contrast: the girl who has never read but thinks rightly, looking at everything with wonder, and the fire chief who has read the classics and scorns them.  This brilliantly executed inversion of stereotype supports one of the author’s main themes: more important than a book is the worldview of the person reading it.  If you have the right mindset about life, books are a wonderful help, but not absolutely necessary.  If you have the wrong mindset, books only strengthen you in your evil.  A person like Clarisse, turned outward and full of life, already has what books offer, and for that person books are like a prism, illuminating what is already there; but a person like Beatty, twisted and turned inward on himself, is past the help of books unless his entire worldview changes.

     The second set of contrasts in the chiasmus is Millie, Montag’s wife, and Faber, the old English professor.  Neither has the self-assurance of Beatty or Clarisse; they are small-souled, thinking of their own comfort and safety before their ideals.  Millie is the personification of the city in which she and Montag live, a silly, empty woman with no identity or interests outside the three walls of the television in the parlor.  Faber is plaster-white from hiding in his apartment and trembles with disbelief when a desperate fireman places a book in his hands.  Both he and Millie are shaken out of their comfort when Montag discovers books; both tremulously, tentatively, take a few steps with him out of their darkness.  

      Faber is aroused out of his long cowardice by Montag’s need for help and embraces the adventure, danger, and fullness of living printed on the pages Montag hands him.  Millie is offered the same choice but reads in those pages the end of her comfortable life, and thinks that by fleeing her husband and his heretical ideas she can remain safe and happy.  These small-souled characters demonstrate the choices — and consequences — offered to each person who encounters the truth through books.  Beatty’s and Clarisse’s characters are already set, but Faber and Millie exist so the reader can watch them choose deceptive comfort or uncomfortable truth and learn from the consequences.  This chiasmus is constructed to show that while books are important and to be treasured, they are still subordinate to a person’s worldview.  

     And what happens to these characters?  They die, and each death is a catalyst for Montag.  The book woman lights her own pyre, driving him to books and to Faber for answers.  Millie attempts suicide, and after she is saved Montag barely knows her.  Clarisse disappears, leaving a questioning void in Montag.  Beatty comes to a flame-and-char end through Montag’s flamethrower, which forces Montag out of the city, saving his life.  Faber disappears.  Montag escapes down the river in a symbolic death and resurrection.  Millie and the city are bombed into dust at the same instant, and Montag is given the chance to return and help.   

      Rather than devolving into morbidity, this story presents a distinctly Christian view of death as punishment, sacrifice, martyrdom, or redemption.  When Millie and the city are bombed into oblivion, their physical state finally matches the spiritual state they both have been whitewashing for so long.  This punishment will go unredeemed because they chose it when they chose their specious happiness.  Beatty dies, not only as punishment for his evil, but also as a sacrifice which saves Montag’s life.  A bystander becomes an unwitting sacrifice to satisfy the police in place of Montag.  The old woman dies a martyr because she chooses to give up her life rather than her principles, both defying tyranny and inspiring a fireman.  Montag himself dies a symbolic death that brings him to hope and redemption.  By structuring the plot around death, the author adds another facet to his message: one’s view of death and view of books are equally important.  Death is a warning and an irrevocable catalyst.  When people remember that they will die, it urges them seriously to examine what is important, and to pass these things on to their children.  The people of Fahrenheit 451 have ignored the idea of death, so they have abandoned everything of sense and value for the sake of temporary entertainment.  

     But in this story and in Christianity, there is more to death than the mere end of life, and the aftermath of Montag’s death brings hope and redemption to almost every aspect of the story.  The river sweeps him down into the dark, and he rises out of it in the morning, free, in a picture of death and resurrection and of baptism.  He meets a group of men who feed him and explain to him that they are walking books,  and his loneliness and anger are redeemed and give way to community.  They use fire to cook and give warmth, not to destroy, and fire is redeemed.  Books, now memorized and recited, are redeemed from their disgrace to valued conduits of tradition, wisdom, and beauty.  Death itself is redeemed because it has brought Montag into new, abundant life.  He now has something to give and understands the proper time and place to give it.  His anger, despair, and confusion are made whole, and he is ready to help.

     This finale of redemption is absolutely necessary to the message and understanding of Fahrenheit 451.  The people in the city are trapped in a bleak, evil system with only the faintest hope of a way out, but with the redemption of the main character and motifs, hope becomes reality.  This ending makes the book internally consistent and completes the Christian metaphor of death by showing one resurrection as a foretaste of more to come.  If there were no redemption at the end of Fahrenheit 451, the message would be drastically different.  Instead of urging us back to the essence of books, it would hold up this image of a better life only to smash it in our faces, telling us that anything but the present nihilism and amorality is a pipe dream.  But with the redemption of a remnant, the author points us to truth and hope instead.

     In the end, Fahrenheit 451 is both hopeful and damning.  Through the brilliant structural contrast of Beatty, well-read but evil, and Clarisse, unread but good, the author shows that books are subordinate to worldview.  The opposition of Millie and Faber demonstrates the consequences of choosing Beatty’s evil instead of Clarisse’s goodness, and that death brings either punishment or redemption.  The warnings and promises in this book are as urgent and applicable now as they were seventy years ago.  Instead of bombs from nuclear superpowers, we fear bombs from terrorists.  Our civil discourse has devolved to the level of kindergarten while our cities burn.  If we wish to preserve our culture, we must preserve our books subordinate to Clarisse’s and Montag’s worldview, while remembering that we are mortal and that our choices ultimately determine life and death.  Let us warn our city before the bombs fall.  

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